The rise of Hitler and the Nazis made history. In a short space of time, Germany had gone from an impoverished and politically unstable nation to a great power set on the domination of Europe. The Second World War and the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust sent shockwaves across the world, while the alliances and grudges formed in this conflict set the stage for the Cold War, which brought with it a whole new manner of problems for Germans to face.The Nazi regime set Germany on a new course: self-sufficiency increased, the economic hardship of the 1920s faded away, and new networks of schools, hospitals and roads stretched across the country. Yet a lasting image of Nazi Germany will always be the grainy, black and white footage from Berlin, May 1945. Under the cold light of a grey sky, women bestride the fallen buildings like stepping-stones, clearing away the rubble. These Trümmerfrauen (‘rubble women’) have pixelated faces, but the camera still picks up their stony expressions. When their eyes occasionally flit towards the lens, they betray nothing. Today, these women are a symbol of Germany rebuilding itself without complaint after the war, though less than 5% of the female population of Berlin actually got involved.
|Trümmerfrauen in Berlin (Source: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)|
But it was not just the German cities and dreams of a thousand-year Reich that lay in ruins. The Nazis did not only make history, they brought about its destruction.
In one respect, this was definitely the fault of the Nazis themselves. Their culture of propaganda and censorship famously destroyed or otherwise did away with thousands of priceless artefacts and works of art. Also, the fire that burned down the Reichstag building in 1933 – if one accepts that the Nazis were indeed responsible for starting it – would have destroyed decades-worth of invaluable parliamentary records and archival material.
But the harm done to History runs deeper than that. It was not merely the physical evidence that was damaged, but our attitudes towards History itself. It remains a problem both in Germany and here in Britain.
Since the 18th century, much has been made by historians of the German Sonderweg (‘special path’). The premise of this idea is that Germany developed in a different way to the rest of the western world, through its placement of moral and cultural values above politics. Politics was considered a science – concerned with the outside world – while literature, art and philosophy were superior practices that concerned themselves with the soul and innermost nature of mankind. This division in society created apathy towards politics, and so this Kulturvolk (‘cultured people’) did little to either support or condemn the actions of German politicians, including the two World Wars.
The strength of the Kulturvolk - and whether or not the Sonderweg existed at all – is still up for debate, but Germany’s rich culture was no doubt impoverished by the Nazi takeover. In 1933, Germany had the greatest intelligentsia in the world. More Germans had won the Nobel Prize than the British and Americans combined, and the great age of physics was about to be ushered in by Germans: Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner, among others.
However, much of this is now forgotten. A culture of guilt and reticence still permeates German society. Even now, German flags are only ever brought out at football matches, in case an overt display of nationalism would hearken back to the days of the Third Reich. There is in Germany a perceived moral responsibility to remember the horrors of the Nazi regime. It is significant that the largest public monument in the centre of Berlin is the Holocaust memorial, made up of 2711 stone slabs resembling nameless tombstones.
The necessity for Germans to look back and learn from their Nazi pasts has cast a shadow over all that came before. The successes of the Kulturvolk seem insignificant in comparison, and aspects of it have been tainted. Let us consider the words of journalist and writer Florian Illies:
“Anyone who still said that they liked Caspar David Friedrich stood accused for decades of not being sufficiently critical with regard to German history.”
Caspar David Friedrich was an acclaimed landscape painter at the turn of the 19th century. He has been hailed as the greatest romanticist of his generation, and in many ways was the German equivalent of JMW Turner. His work became less popular as the 19th century drew to a close. Art had become less contemplative and more reflective of an increasingly industrialised society, a society that no longer saw green pastures and stormy skies as relevant. This was to change when the Nazis rose to prominence in the 1930s, and Friedrich’s symbolic landscapes were claimed as icons of German nationalism. From its association with the Nazis, Friedrich’s work was subsequently looked upon with distain. Only recently has he been lauded by art historians once again as one of the greats.
One is inclined to describe the Third Reich as an historical mirror: it places a barrier between the 1930s and ‘40s and the more distant past. One cannot see beyond it, and instead sees themselves reflected in it.
In Britain, too, the Nazis have overpowered all other views we hold about Germany. In 2004, when a survey asked 10-16 year olds what they associated with Germany, 78% mentioned the Second World War. Similarly, the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Holy See sparked a media outcry in Britain on account of his Nazi past. Headlines like the Sun’s ‘From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi’ prompted Franz Joseph Wagner in Berlin to write angrily that ‘anyone reading your British popular newspapers must have thought Hitler had been made pope.’
Our obsession is understandable. It is not only the Germans who have sought to take moral lessons from these events, and the Third Reich therefore remains a cornerstone of the national curriculum. We also love sensationalism in history. The three most popular topics in A-level History have always been the Tudors, Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany. Whether it’s Henry VIII or Hitler, it seems our curriculum needs some sort of despot to keep people entertained.
The Second World War also forms a large part of our collective identity. For many, the efforts on the Home Front are seen as a golden age of British patriotism. A far cry from our modern society’s focus on the individual, the 1940s saw men, women and children of all backgrounds banding together to defeat the Nazi menace. One only needs to check the TV listings to find at least five documentaries per week about some aspect of the war, as well as reruns of Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers or ‘Allo , ‘Allo. It is clear to see that the Second World War – for better or for worse - has dominated popular culture.
The world is still slowly moving on from the events of 70 years ago. Close connections between Britain and the Germany have begun to dismiss the stereotypes of the German people, so that, even if it is still often viewed as a nation of car-manufacturers and sunbed-stealers, Germany is no longer perceived as a nation of Nazis. That shadow is beginning to lift. The anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen have also prompted a re-evaluation of the Holocaust, bringing both sides of the war together in widely-publicised services of remembrance.
The anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, celebrated last week, has also allowed us to reflect on the damage caused by the war on both sides, and to what extent the rift has been bridged. In his address at the VE thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey on Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury said:
“Our gratitude is not simply for victory-in-Europe, but also reconciliation-in-Europe that followed, neither obviously nor automatically. Peace is more than the end of war: reconciliation dismantles the hostilities which previously separated and alienated us from one another and from God.”
These ‘hostilities’ and stereotypes might be fading, but more must still be done. Perhaps in this special anniversary year we can make an exception, but there is so much more to German history than Hitler and the Nazi Party, and we should make a more conscious effort to discover it.